Google has updated its search algorithms in  a way which may impact an attorney’s efforts at search engine optimization. The latest search update, which Google is calling “Hummingbird,” focuses more on “intelligent matching” in which the engine will focus on the intent of a query and the intent of web content rather than specific words. This update was officially announced on September 26, 2013. No time is better than the present for attorneys to being optimizing their content for better search results.

Google’s use of search algorithms impacts an attorney’s SEO efforts

It is important for attorneys to understand that rising to the top of search is not magic. Google uses a series of algorithms to determine which sites should place higher in search. It is not necessarily important for an attorney to understand the specifics of Google’s processes. High search rankings can be obtained by understanding the types of information Google is seeking through its algorithmic approach and ensuring that your website provides that type of information. Dealing with Google’s newest algorithm requires understanding what a search algorithm is and understanding the evolution of search.

Understanding what a “search algorithm” is will be key to an attorney’s SEO efforts

Amit Singhal announcing Hummingbird

An algorithm is a process for solving a problem. In the context of Google, an algorithm governs the way in which the search engine takes your query and returns search results. When you input a query into Google’s search bar it is then put through a method which identifies the meaning of terms for which you are searching and attempts to match it against content on the web. This process involves hundreds of factors which Google considers. As the the amount of content on the web has increased, Google’s algorithms have had to become more advanced in order to return the most relevant results to its users.

A search engine’s algorithm will always focus on returning the results most relevant to the user’s query. The goal of companies such as Google is to provide their users with the most relevant results. After all, if a search engine is not returning relevant information then people become less likely to use that search engine. These algorithms are constantly evolving for two reasons. First, people are viewing increasingly varied forms of content from a wider variety of devices (such as web video content and smartphone information consumption) and Google must be able to provide relevant results in these instances. Second, as people are always trying to find ways to manipulate search results, the search engines must modify their algorithms to prevent low quality content from achieving high search results. After all, low quality search results would eventually mean fewer people using a search engine’s services. A search algorithm, therefore, is nothing more than a method for ensuring that searchers are receiving the information most relevant to their query.

The history of Google’s search algorithms is important to an attorney’s understanding of Hummingbird

Google’s algorithm has evolved quite a bit since 1998. The company revolutionized search in 1998 with it’s “Pagerank” algorithm. This method, name for Google co-founder Larry Page, counted the number of links pointing from other sites to a particular site. Google’s founders realized that a higher number of links pointing to a site likely meant that the site being linked to was relevant; after all, people were not likely to link to a page unless they considered it relevant. This “backlink” count formed the basis of Google’s original search results.

Google’s search algorithms evolved over time as people attempted to manipulate the system. It is important to note that not every change made by Google represented an entirely new algorithm. The constant changing and tweak made by Google are typically changes to an existing algorithm and do not represent an entirely new method. The last complete change was in 2010 when Google switched to an algorithm it code named “Caffeine.” This 2010 switch was made so that fresher content, such as that which comes from social media, would receive equal consideration in the search engine. The Caffeine method has been refined since 2010 but has remained in place until recently.

Google has adopted a new search algorithm which is code named “Hummingbird”

Google announced a switch to the “Hummingbird” algorithm on September 26, 2013. This new method will allow the search engine to match the intent of search queries with the intent of content. In other words, search will no longer be so dependent on keywords. Instead of matching a query of “aggressive DUI Lawyer” with an website that contains the phrases “aggressive” and “DUI Lawyer,” the search engine will recognize that the searcher is looking for a DUI attorney who will be proactive and will match it with an attorney’s website which lays out a plan for proactive representation. This will mean a slow demise of “boolean” search terms, which string together various terms in different sets of quotation marks, to longer tail searches such as “find an aggressive DUI lawyer in Florida.” It is important to note, however, that many factors that Google considered in the Caffeine algorithm have been carried over to Hummingbird.

Google’s switch to a system which interprets the intent of searchers and publishers is not a surprise. At the 2011 AllthdingsD conference, Google Executive Eric Schmidt discussed that Google’s artificial intelligence technology had progressed far enough to “compute” a correct answer as opposed to relying on algorithms that did things such as count back links.

What Hummingbird means to attorneys’ SEO efforts

Hummingbird will not represent a major change to attorneys who were already practicing a good SEO strategy. In my discussion of why SEO impacts attorneys, I discussed that a key to making a legal website stand out is to write unique and compelling content. Hummingbird simply amplifies the need to make your content stand out from the crowd by providing quality information. Don’t fill your website with shallow language about how you will aggressively represent your client – which is typical of most legal websites (especially, in my opinion, those generated by Findlaw). Instead, ensure that your content informs your client of the steps you will take to provide effective representation. It is now even more important for your website to discuss, in a substantive way, what makes you different from other attorneys.

Blogging is an excellent method of writing content optimized for Hummingbird. Don’t, however, make the common mistakes I discussed in my article explaining why attorneys need blogs. You should be posting to your blog regularly and providing in-depth discussion of topics. A common error is to simply post something stating “our firm won a child custody case today.” Instead, write an article explaining, in detail, child custody law in your jurisdiction and how that law applied in the case at hand. This is the type of substantive information that I expect to do well under the Hummingbird update.

Hummingbird is not the end of SEO. It is actually an opportunity for you to stand out from your competition by writing unique content that other attorney’s cannot, or simply will not, write themselves. Quality content remains the best way to rank higher in search and to gain more clients.